Hair Covering Revisited: Sheva Brachot

I’ve written on this blog before about my relationship with hair covering. Readers know that I planned not to cover my hair at all after I got married, other than in synagogue. I wrote about how I woke up the day after my wedding feeling like nothing had changed but knowing that everything had changed and wanting a physical indication of such. Since that point, I’ve grappled with decisions about when and where to cover my hair: I covered my hair every time I was out in public during the sheva brachot week. I covered my hair at some, but not all, weddings. I covered my hair at shul, except that one time when I went away for shabbat and forgot to bring a head covering with me. Sometimes I leave the hair covering on after shul, other times I take it off immediately. Most times I leave it on atleast during kiddush.

Mayim Bialik, one of my favorite celebrities to follow, just started a new blog site, GrokNation. I have high hopes for the future of the site. She reposted some of her older articles that previously appeared on Kveller.com. One such article was her piece on covering her hair after her divorce. I remember reading that article shortly after she originally published it, and thinking that it was interesting but not too applicable to my life, as I’m not divorced and (thankfully) don’t have to struggle with that particular question.

Upon re-reading the article, however, something jumped out at me. Mayim wrote about her own relationship with hair covering during the course of her marriage, and mentioned how excited she was to wear all her brand new hats and scarves during the shave brachot week. Like me, Mayim didn’t cover her hair all the time, but there were certain times when she did. Shea Brachot was one such time.

This is important. Before my marriage, I was so adamant that I wasn’t going to cover my hair outside of synagogue at all. I read all sorts of halachic analyses of the practice and determined that it was no longer necessary. I knew many of my peers still covered their hair, for various reasons, but I thought they were foolish and encouraging a practice that is no longer applicable.

But that day after my wedding I was shocked at how “undifferent” I felt. I was still the same me, wearing my same clothes and driving my same car and hanging out with my same partner, whose title had changed from boyfriend to finance to husband but who was essentially the same person. But we WERE different. We were MARRIED. I wanted to walk out of that honeymoon suite and announce to the world: We are no longer two individuals, we are one unit.

In Judaism, we utilize the physical to represent the spiritual all the time. Kiddush is a prayer that sanctifies the specialness of the sabbath with wine and bread. Tfilin are prayer garments, worn for no other purpose than to physically connect with prayer. After my wedding, I needed to physically represent the new me. My new ring wasn’t enough. I wanted something to say, look at me, I’m married. A hair covering would do that.

So I went to the hotel gift shop and bought a scarf and wrapped it around my hair. I wore all sorts of hair coverings during that week, but then sheva brachot ended and life went back to normal. I didn’t need a hair covering anymore, I knew who I was and that was enough. I took it off. I wore my hats and scarves on shabbat at synagogue but not during when I was at school or work.

The important thing is, I don’t feel that I was inconsistent with myself. I needed the transition period of sheva brachot to feel like I was transitioning into marriage, but once I made the transition, I could let things go back to “normal”.

There has been a lot written about hair covering: Applicable today or not? All hair or partial hair? Wig or hat? I think that something that’s been overlooked is the acknowledgement that there’s not just before-marriage and after-marriage, there are a lot more grey areas. Sheva Brachot serves an important transitional function: One’s life does change, dramatically, with marriage. By taking a week to focus solely on being married, Judaism and halacha recognize that a transition period is necessary.

I think that it is important to understand the value in a transition period. I think that sheva brachot is an excellent opportunity to explore one’s relationship with hair covering and to try out different practices before fully deciding on something. And just like in every other religious decision, it does not have to be a final decision. People’s thoughts and views are always evolving, and they will change with time and experience, and sheva brachot is the perfect time to explore those different perspectives.

Random Thoughts: New Job Edition

I just started a new job, details of which I really can’t discuss in public. Suffice it to say that I am an attorney at a public interest organization, and I am in family court every day. I love it.

Some random thoughts on the new job that I can share:

*My office is predominantly female. It was the first time in a really long time that I noticed a male co-worker of mine looking uncomfortable because he is working in a female-dominated field. This doesn’t happen too much in law. I also noticed that although we all wear suits, his suit was the only suit with a pocket. When all the attorneys were given USB drives, he was the only one who had a place to put it (our purses and briefcases were at our desks in a different room). Sigh, female suit makers. If we’re going to dress like men, we should at least get the pockets that they get.

*I really, really, really hate the subway.

*It seems like all the women at the office are either going on maternity leave or just coming back from maternity leave. I appreciate that this is a culture where having children and working is encouraged. I wish more men went on paternity leave, though. For a lot of reasons. One, because I want fathers to be just as involved with their children as mothers. Two, because it de-stigmatizes women for going on leave. Three, it encourages a culture where parenthood isn’t automatically assumed to be a female role.

*It’s really hard to avoid sounding like a religious nut when you start right before passover, have to take off four days for your holiday, can’t eat any of the office food, can’t go out to eat with your co-workers, can’t use the microwave, and can easily explain to your co-worker why the Jews won’t push the buttons on the elevators in her building on Saturdays. I WISH I could find a way to avoid talking religion at work, but it’s really impossible.

*What the heck does “business casual” mean?

*I apparently fit into plus size clothing now. I have newfound understanding of the discrimination that plus-size women have. Their departments seem to always be hidden in a back corner of a basement in the department stores, and only feature a fraction of the selection for twice the price. Since I’m just on the border, I can wear both regular sizes and plus sizes, but man, do I feel bad for those women who only wear plus clothing. I sense a new campaign coming on.

 

The Invisible Woman

Last shabbat, I was sitting in shul during mincha, already having finished my private shemona esrai prayer, waiting for the chazzan to begin the public repetition. As is oft to happen, I was the only woman in shul. Now, let’s be honest here, I don’t normally go to shul for mincha, but megilla reading was Saturday night, ten minutes after shabbat ended, and I wanted to make sure I got to shul in time. I sort of figured that other women would have had the same thought, but nope.

But anyway. This particular shul has what I term a “women problem”. By that I mean, women just don’t go to shul. They don’t go on Friday night at ALL and on shabbat morning, there are MAYBE a third of the number of women as there are men. I’m not really sure why this is. The shul is located near an apartment complex where many young, newly married couples live. Some of these couples have children and apparently, once you have children, you become unable to ever leave your house at a reasonable time. I get that. But many of these couples don’t have children. The men go to shul, but the women stay home and read or sleep or set the table.

This is particularly troublesome for me, as one of the things I enjoy about shul is seeing my friends and having a chance to catch up with them on a weekly basis. (Obviously not during davening. Don’t you dare try to talk with me while I’m praying. But afterwards, hello.) If my female friends aren’t there, I feel like shul is lacking.

I’ve thought a lot about why women don’t go to shul, and I’ve spoken to a number of women about it. Although each has their own particular reason it basically comes down to “I’d prefer to stay at home and do X than go to shul”.

I mentioned above that I don’t normally go to shabbat mincha. I did, however, do that while I was in college. In fact, in college I prayed with a minyan three times a day, seven days a week. Sometimes I missed a minyan because I had class or homework or was too exhausted to wake up because I had just pulled an all-nighter, but the goal was there. A lot of that had to do with peer pressure, and the fact that going to minyan meant a chance to see my friends. Maariv was great because it was a short prayer in the middle of the night where I could literally take a 15 minute break and see 50 of my friends, and then go back to whatever I was doing before.

So, that brings me back to my current predicament. I go to shul on Friday night and I see maybe three women there, many weeks I’m the only one. Shabbat morning there are maybe twenty. Shabbat mincha, forget about it. Nothing.

There I was, last week, in shul on shabbat afternoon, davening mincha, when the gabbai starts walking around the shul and collecting the unused siddurim and chumashim to re-shelve. Now, this is totally inappropriate during mincha. He should be davening; he can clean up afterwards. But even more inappropriately, he walked over to the women’s section and started to do the same thing there! I was standing alone, and there he comes, just waltzing in to my section as if he owned the place.

I had many mixed feelings about the occurrence. On the one hand, I felt violated, raped. Who is he to decide he can come over to my section?? On the other hand, I felt like I shouldn’t really mind, because anyways I don’t like mechitzas and I would prefer to daven without them, though I recognize their pseudo-halachic  requirement (really, all that’s needed to satisfy the halacha is a separation, these ridiculous fake walls that people put up are basically just chumras adopted by leading rabbis). So if I would prefer to daven without a mechitza, why should I care that this guy violated the mechitza rule and just waltzed in to my section?

I guess what bothered me was the double standard. He, because of his maleness and sense of owning the shul, could go wherever he wanted whenever he wanted, and no one will say anything. Me, because of my femaleness and otherness, can only go where I am told. I couldn’t just decide to walk over to the men’s section, no, that would make the men feel uncomfortable. Plus, they will say, a man can’t pray in front of a woman, but a woman may pray in front of a man, so if the gabbai was really just walking around and collecting books, no halacha was violated.

Well, you know what? Maybe no halacha was violated, but I was violated. My sense of space was violated. My sense of belonging and sense of welcome was violated. I felt like I didn’t matter, like I was invisible.

And you know what? I was invisible. I, as woman, was invisible. Because there was just me there. The rest of the women were at home taking care of their kids or their house or their friends or their novels. But you know what? That’s not okay. Women, if we don’t want to be invisible, we have to be visible. Come to shul. Pray with me. Take the time out of your day to tell the shuls that we are not the invisible half of your membership, we are here and we are present and we are worth something.

In other words, lean in.

Man and Wife on Opposite Sides

During the last 2 months, I went to three weddings. The weddings were quite different.

The first one was a wedding of two chareidi [ultra-orthodox] people, both of whom came from families that were not as observant as the couple. (The bride’s immediate family is modern orthodox while her extended family is mostly unaffiliated;  the groom’s family is mostly conservative). This wedding was held in the bride’s family’s synagoge, and was a small and intimate yet elegant affair. There was a lot of emphasis on modesty. The wedding invitation included the line “modest attire requested”. We, as female friends of the bride, had prepared some cute presentations for the couple, but were asked to present only to the bride for modesty reasons.

The other wedding I went to was vastly different. The couple was modern orthodox, and had spent the last few months working on a farm together. The wedding venue was a nature reserve. Instead of the traditional kabbalat panim, where the bride sits in a chair and is greeted by all the female guests one by one, The bride had a kallah’s tish/drum circle, located in the reserve’s historic barn. She didn’t have a hair or makeup stylist, instead electing to do everything herself. The chuppah canopy was held up on poles by four couples that the bride and groom had close relationships with (we were one of the couples). The bride gave the groom his ring publicly at the bedeken (veiling ceremony) instead of privately, after the ceremony.

The third one was held in a large, all-in-one wedding hall in Brooklyn. These wedding halls are known for being all inclusive, all you do is pick the date, and tell them how many people you expect, and then they take care of everything from orchestrating the ceremony to planning the menu. This particular hall had rules that any wedding in that hall must have separate seating for men and women, both at the ceremony and the meal.

Despite their differences, the weddings were, in many ways, very similar. All were orthodox weddings, so all featured no touching between the bride and groom until after the ceremony. All featured separate dancing for men and women. All had kosher food.

Another thing that both weddings featured was separate seating for men and women at the ceremony.

According to halacha, there is absolutely nothing wrong with men and women sitting next to each other while watching the ceremony. Orthodox synagogues feature separate seating for prayers, but that restriction is limited to times of prayer and places that regularly serve as places of prayer. Therefore, an impromptu minyan in an individual’s home does not require a separation. Furthermore, a non-prayer function in a synagoge, such as a lecture or a wedding, does not require separate seating. While there are brachot that are said during a wedding, this does not fall into the same category as prayer and therefore does not require separation.

Before the first two weddings, I chatted about the details with each bride. I asked each of them what amount of separation there would be. The first wedding’s bride told me that the ceremony would be separate, but the meal would be together, although there would still be a partition for the dancing. She said she would probably have preferred to have the the meal separate too, but their families wouldn’t hear of it. The second wedding’s bride told me that everyone would be sitting together at the wedding, because she didn’t feel there was any reason to split the seating. The third wedding was dictated by the wedding hall rules.

A funny thing happened at the second wedding. Although the bride had specifically instructed her friends that seating was mixed, most of the other guests just assumed it was separate, and chose to sit separately. The few friends who were sitting on the “wrong” side were forced to give up their seats to members of the opposite sex, and to find other seating on the “correct” side. All this took place while the bride and groom were in the back, when they entered, they were completely surprised to find all the men on one side of the isle while all the women were on the other.

THIS angered me more than anything else. I respect a couple’s right to choose to conduct their wedding in whichever way they see fit. If they want separate everything, fine, I don’t love it, but I’ll respect it. BUT, the fact that the assumption is now that seating should be separate is problematic.

Since I’ve been married, I’ve had the occasion to go to more than one wedding where the only person I knew there was my husband. It’s quite un-fun to sit amongst a pile of women not knowing anyone, and without having my husband as a buffer to introduce me to the few women that he happens to. “Oh”, you say. “That’s not a big deal. The ceremony is only half a hour, 45 minutes at most. You have the whole rest of the wedding to spend with your husband and your male friends”. Wrong. As evidenced by this third wedding, separate seating at meals is becoming increasingly popular as well. “Oh”, you say. “Thats just a small minority of ultra-orthodox extremists. In your modern orthodox circles, you probably won’t have to deal with it too much”. Wrong again. Separate seating at ceremonies used to be unheard of, something practiced only by the most stringent. Now, apparently, it’s the assumption.Rather than posting signs to inform guests of separate seating, couples who wish to ensure that their friends are able to sit with the people that they choose are forced to put signs up indicating the wedding is mixed seating. My prediction is that if things keep going the way they are, in five years the standard will be that people will be sitting separately at the meals, too. This is something that the Modern Orthodox community shouldn’t take lightly, we should fight it at every opportunity we have. If we don’t, we let the Brooklyn wedding mills win.

Niddah Diaries: The Minor Inconveniences

Unlike the author of this excellent piece about keeping niddah for the first time, I did expect niddah to be hard. I expected to feel distant from my husband and frustrated with not touching. I expected that the emotional turmoil that niddah creates would harm rather than strengthen our marriage. I expected to feel resentful of halacha for interfering with my life in a most intimate way.

What I didn’t expect, however, were the ways niddah interferes with my life in minor ways. I haven’t had a manicure since my wedding. Now, that’s not super unusual for me, I generally adhere to the philosophy of “why pay someone to do something that I can do myself”, but I also like to indulge once in a while. Recently, I was walking around manhattan with some time to kill, when I found myself in front of one those quickie-cheap nail salons, where you can get a mani-pedi for twenty bucks in twenty minutes. I thought it would be a good idea, but then I realized mikvah night was a few days away. Grr. No sense in getting my nails done when I’m just going to have to take it off in a few days.

Similarly, I recently accidentally cut myself on a razor that I had thrown into my huge catch-all bag that I carry to work. I was going to the mikvah that night straight from work, so I had to make sure to bring everything I needed with me in the morning. Trust me, it’s super awkward when your secular co-workers ask why you have a razor in your bag.

In a sense, it seems trite to complain about these things. Really, you have to be more organized in planning your manicures? Oh boo hoo. But actually, this is just a reflection of the bigger problem that I feel with halacha. Halacha wants to get into to your life and pop it’s annoying head up everywhere. It is exactly the sentiment expressed in that line from The Fiddler on the Roof: “We have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes…This shows our constant devotion to God.”

And that is how halacha is dually beautiful and over-intrusive, all at the same time.

Women and the Back of The Bus

I guess I like to debate.

With every single roomate I’ve had, I’ve grown closer with them through debating life, religion, philosophy, and other essentials–like which purse goes with which necklace.

Today’s debate revolved around the minute inconveniences in life, and whether or not they are “a big deal”. Some examples that were brought up:

-Religious schools which ask their female students not to “put up or take their hair down” during class, because those are sensual acts which might arouse the male teachers (there are no male students in the particular school in question)

-Women being asked/required to sit in the back of some religiously operated bus lines.

-Women being asked to walk on a separate sidewalk from men.

Each of these things, in and of themselves, isn’t really a major inconvenience to women’s lives. My roommate argued that she didn’t really care whether these policies were imposed against her, because it doesn’t really cause her any harm to comply with them.

Sure, the seats in the back may not be as nice as the seats in the front, sure, it’s not to hard to just step outside of the classroom if you want to adjust your hair, sure, the sidewalk on the other side of the street will still get you to where you need to go, but these are not the problems with these policies. Taken as a whole, the policies represent a blatant bias against women.

Now, some parts of halacha are biased against women, I’ll give you that. Women can’t file for jewish divorce, women can’t count as part of the requisite 10 men of a formal prayer group, women can’t lead some parts of the davening service…Depending on interpretation, the list can go on and on.

But these things in question have no basis in halacha. Nowhere are women prevented from walking down the same street with men, traveling in the same part of the car as men, or adjusting their hair in public (except in the view of those which require married women’s hair to be covered in public, which still, of course, only applies to MARRIED women!).

Accepting these requirements, and even encouraging other girls and women to follow them represents an acceptance of the discrimination against women that runs much deeper than halacha.

I know of many people that feel that halachic observance encourages a discriminatory mindset, and are therefore not orthodox (many are very observant egalitarian Jews). My response has been that no, there are plenty of jews that eschew discrimination against women, yet follow halacha because they believe in the greater good of following a set code of values (divinely given or not).

I believe these comments undermine my previous response. The fact that people, modern, worldly, people, can accept these forms of discriminations as “no big inconvenience” shows that they are completely removed from the idea of gender discrimination. Today it may be hair tying and bus seating, tomorrow it may be schools and workplaces (Oh, wait. That was 40 years ago and is still being settled). I believe that it is a commitment to anti-women halachic practices which encourages this behavior.

And this is what scares me the most, because I too engage in some of these anti-women halachic practices. I don’t count myself in the prayer group, I refuse to lead services, I dress modestly. Will I become one of the seperate seaters? Will I encourage women not to tie their hair infront of men? Will I become one of them?